Mythology 5 – Apocalypse – Visions of the End

Sorry for the delay in posting – I got busy and distracted, and had to do some more deconstruction / reconstruction before writing this post.  It’s still a work in progress, but here are a few thoughts on the mythology of the book of Revelation and on Christian eschatology in general:

Working Assumptions:  1) We can only see through a glass darkly and engage in a lot of speculation when we try to understand the end of the world as we know it, the age to come, and life after death. 2) I’ll take my pragmatic approach to evaluating what is useful (and not useful) in Christian eschatology.  3) Revelation and much New Testament eschatology isn’t primarily about the age to come – it’s mainly apocalyptic (ie. epic, mythological, political-theological) commentary on current affairs at the time of writing – but also full of eschatological overtones and expectations of a final victory of good over evil.  It’s a fascinating mix of Jewish prophetic tradition, Persian & Greek mythology, and Jesus-centered messianic hope.

Basic Plot of Christian Eschatological Mythology (and many other epic myths including most modern action, fantasy, and superhero movies):  There’s an epic battle between good and evil, God and Satan, the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness.  In the end, God wins.  Evil is defeated and finally destroyed, which may involve annihilation, torment (or possibly rehabilitation?!?) of evil people.  Good triumphs and the good / saved-by-grace chosen people are vindicated, comforted, and rewarded.  An eternal kingdom of beauty, justice, peace: restored Shalom, is established.

Seeing Darkly:  I don’t know for certain what the ‘age to come’ will be like, or if my individual consciousness will ‘literally’ continue after death.  I’m very curious to know what will become of humanity, human civilization, the possibility of trans-humanism, the possibility of interplanetary colonization, the possibility of meeting other conscious beings, the future of the universe… perhaps some of our hopes for the future will be realized in some form in this physical universe, but all of that is shrouded in mystery as well.  I believe my present consciousness and soul are emergent products of my physical brain and body.  If my soul survives death in an alternate age to come – it will be because I am known and loved by God and God will preserve what God loves and re-embody me in some other unimaginable reality.

Useful Elements of Christian Eschatology:  While I hold my hope loosely, I think hopeful thinking is pragmatically useful.  It’s good to hope for a world of love, joy, peace: Shalom, and to believe that this hope will be realized one day.  It’s good to believe in a cause bigger than myself.  It’s good to believe that love survives death.  It’s good to believe that I’m accountable for my actions, that there is some ultimate justice in the cosmos.  Reward, fear, and shame are very low-level motivations for good behavior, but perhaps they have some role to play in our individual and collective spiritual formation.  It’s good to hope that the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice.  It’s good to believe that good wins.

Danger One – Ultimate Dualism & Exclusion:  Is there really an epic battle between good and evil?  It certainly feels that way much of the time.  Sometimes military metaphors are good for inspiring courage, ‘righteousness’, justice, activism, and battle against the darkness within.  BUT, wrongly applied, as it tragically often is, this metaphor fuels so much judgment, condemnation, self-righteousness, violence, hatred, us-them thinking, and dehumanization of the other.  And when turned inward, it fuels so much self-loathing, shame, repression, and other misguided approaches to self improvement.  There is no clear line between us & them, and no clear line even between the good and evil in our own hearts.

Danger Two – Escapism: Not Feeling at Home in the World, Not Feeling at Home in our Bodies, Not Accepting our Mortality, Not Living in the Present.  (enough said for now)

Christian Eschatology May Actually Be More Nuanced After All:  Biblical eschatology is a convoluted mess of mixed metaphors – and maybe that’s the point:  Maybe Jesus just doesn’t fit neatly into the black and white plot structure of dualism.  And so the Lion of Judah is also the Lamb that was Slain.  And after the last battle, death and destruction, Armageddon, the lake of fire, etc., the vision ends with an ambiguous and hopeful image:  There’s the new Jerusalem, the new city of Shalom.  And outside are the evil doers (wait I thought they were already destroyed or suffering eternal torment in the lake of fire?) – no, there they are outside the gates.  And yet, the gates are never shut, and there’s a stream flowing from the throne for the healing of the nations, and the nations are streaming in, and “The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.

Other Metaphors:  Maybe life is a battle… but it’s also a journey, a story, a tragedy-comedy-fairy tale, a composition, a work of art, an emergence, a divergence, a convergence, a becoming, a complex web of relationships, a collaborative game, a wonderful series of accidents, a mystery, a question, a surprise, a poem, a love song…  There are so many ways to find meaning, and to create meaning in this wonderful, wild life.

(Thanks to Richard Rohr, Brian McLaren, Bradley Jersak, Kevin Kelly, Frederick Buechner, N.T. Wright, and others for inspiring some of the ideas and images above)

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Mythology 4 – Jesus of Nazareth, the Cosmic Christ

It’s fitting that this post on Jesus falls during the feast of Christmas – that magical time of year when believers and skeptics alike sense something of the wonder and beauty of the mystery of the incarnation.

Working Assumptions:  Jesus of Nazareth was the incarnation of the Divine – specifically of the Cosmic Christ, that person of the Trinity which manifests itself tangibly in the material cosmos and reconciles all things to God.  The four gospels are reasonably accurate accounts of his life, teaching, miracles, death, and resurrection.  There are some minor discrepancies between accounts and some authorial selectivity and editorializing as one might expect.  For those who don’t believe in all the supernatural elements in this story, you might still be inspired to faith and following Jesus – this is mythology at its truest and best.

An abbreviated list of powerful insights from the story of Jesus:

God in Christ is with us – Emmanuel.  We are never abandoned and alone.

God in Christ keeps his promises, but blows away our expectations.  Jesus is the fulfillment of Abraham’s story:  the new Adam, the new Abraham, the new Moses, the new David, the one blessed to be a blessing to all nations, the perfect prophet, priest, and king, yet also one who overturns and surpasses all expectations: he deconstructs the entire religious system of law, sacrifice, and purity codes; he deconstructs all human systems of separation, discrimination, power, and fear; he opens a new way to God based on love and grace.

God in Christ takes on flesh and bone.  He is uniquely revealed and incarnate in Jesus, but Jesus is a pattern for God’s interaction with all humanity and all reality.  He is born, he is helpless and weak, he grows and learns, he speaks our language, he is embedded in our culture, he eats and drinks, suffers and laughs, bleeds and dies, and lives again.

God in Christ loves, includes, welcomes, forgives, shows grace and mercy, and destroys all barriers that alienate us from each other and from God.

God in Christ heals, restores, renews.  He brings life, wholeness, Shalom.

God in Christ confronts injustice, oppression, and religious hypocrisy and overcomes evil with self-giving love.

God in Christ suffers, experiences our pain and sorrow, identifies with us in our sin and brokenness, demonstrates non-violent enemy love, and carries all the pain and evil down into death.

God in Christ rises again, defeats the powers of sin and death.  We are identified with him in resurrected life, we are called into new creation, death is not the end.

God in Christ invites all people to experience his love and grace, to follow him in the way of the cross and the way of the resurrection, to announce and participate in his kingdom – on earth and in heaven.

Common Misconception – One can believe in the unique incarnation, revelation, and accomplished salvation in Jesus Christ and call others to follow him, without assuming that everyone else is going to hell. Most orthodox traditions would take quite seriously the atoning death and the resurrection of Jesus as actual historical events.  However, one could have different opinions about what aspects of the gospel accounts are historically true and still follow Jesus as pattern, master, teacher, savior, and lord.

An Example of Mythological Reading of the Gospels:  One of my favorite stories is that of Jesus in the boat with his disciples, sleeping peacefully through the raging storm and then calming the wind and waves.  I think it probably really happened.  But how do I apply it to my life today?  Should I pray for control of the weather – for a nice sunny day during a family vacation, or better yet, during a mission outreach event that is sure to bring glory to God?  Should we pray for deliverance from devastating hurricanes, or for greater collective human wisdom regarding our impact on global climate?  I know a Christian friend who lost a sailboat at sea and barely escaped with his life.  In my experience following Jesus has not given me any greater luck with the weather.  Perhaps the storms refer metaphorically to life events in general.  I can remain calm despite difficult and chaotic circumstances and trust that God is in control and he will allow the storm to challenge and test me, but then calm it before it destroys me.  Maybe.  I’ve been blessed with a fairly trauma-free life so far, but even I have often felt overwhelmed by chaos, and I know family and friends who have gone through horrible suffering and abuse.  I’m just not comfortable blithely or simplistically assuming that God is in control.  Maybe the storm is my inner landscape.  I have sometimes learned to sit and breathe and allow Jesus to calm the troubled choppy surface of my mind and heart – to experience deep spiritual and emotional peace despite my circumstances.  And yet, I and people I love sometimes fail to find peace, or find a bit of it only after escape from traumatic circumstances and with the help of therapy and medication.  Jesus is not a magic genie in the bottle and I can’t control if and when and how he calms the storms in my life, but there have been many, many times in my life when I have found this story to be deeply true.

Mythology 3 – Abraham and Family

Working assumptions:  The scriptures called the Jewish Bible or Christian Old Testament are divinely inspired histories, legends, stories, law, wisdom, poetry, and prophecy, which are loosely based in historical events.  There is some wonderful, rich mythology, and a genuine progressive revelation of the divine; and there are some bizarre, outdated, and barbaric elements as well.  I would propose that the modern community that most closely and literally follows Old Testament values and laws is the Taliban.

Helpful Insights:  God is (in some mysterious sense) personal and enters into relationship and covenant faithfulness with particular individuals and communities – working within their historical contexts and gradually drawing them forward toward greater love, justice, wisdom, beauty, and Shalom.  Abraham and his descendants were transformed by their encounter with the divine and were called to follow God in creating a nation of justice that would be a light to all nations.  Against a cultural backdrop of polytheism, the Abrahamic faiths perceived the one-ness of the divine.  Ruling over all the conflicting, capricious, and morally ambiguous spiritual powers was one good, just, loving, faithful, creator, sustainer God.

After their epic, miraculous deliverance from slavery from Egypt, Moses encountered God and was inspired to create a nation based on a set of laws.  These laws contained some strange and elaborate religious instructions, purity taboos, animal sacrifice rituals, and harsh penalties for disobedience; and yet, for their time, these laws were remarkably wise, progressive, humane, and were intended to establish a society built on justice.  Sadly, the people weren’t very good at following the laws.  The religious and political systems kept getting corrupted into hypocritical and oppressive power structures (as human religious and political systems tend to do), so God kept sending prophets- often angry, eccentric, hopeful, poetic, reforming voices crying out against injustice, calling for repentance, and holding out a vision of a Messiah-King who would defeat evil, restore the nation and all of creation, write God’s law on our hearts, and establish God’s eternal, peaceable kingdom.

The Old Testament is full of stories of epic battles, flawed heroes, pitiable villains, great achievements, colossal failures, morally ambiguous and perplexing anecdotes, beautiful poetry, insightful philosophy, practical wisdom, brutally honest lament, and resilient hope.  It ends on a sad but expectant note.  The people, after repeatedly failing to worship God faithfully and treat each other justly, have been defeated, their temple and monarchy destroyed, and taken into exile.  A remnant return to Israel but continue to live under foreign oppression, waiting for their Messiah.

Dangers and Potential Misinterpretations:  Scripture is always a mix of divine revelation and human perception of the divine.  God is progressively revealing himself more clearly and leading humanity toward reconciliation and Shalom.  Looking back from our present vantage point through the lens of Christ, we realize that some of the old perceptions of God need to be modified.

God is both male and female.  The strong, masculine, king image is dominant in a patriarchal society and in scriptures written by men, but the feminine, gentle, beautiful, nurturing, wise, spirit-breath, mother nature of God is also revealed in the Old Testament.

God does not choose one group of people to the exclusion of all others.  God works through particular peoples in particular contexts but does not exclude and condemn everyone else.  While Abraham and his descendants were ‘wrestling with God’, other nations and cultures were having their own encounters with the divine – sometimes with great wisdom and insight, yet also failing to live up to divine standards of love and mercy, just as Israel did.  Abraham was blessed to be a blessing.  Christ affirms and fulfills all that is beautiful and true in all religions and cultures, and Christ calls all people to repentance, to confess our brokenness, to let go of our efforts to establish our own righteousness, to accept God’s grace, to return to him – the source of all that is good.

God is not a violent, vengeful, smiting, god of war.  He is a gracious, peaceful, loving, father.  His wrath is the fierce anger of a loving parent grieved to see his children destroying themselves and each other.  God does NOT condone violence, genocide, wars of aggression, nor racism, slavery, or sexual discrimination and abuse… Old images to the contrary are distorted perceptions that need to be rejected.  [I may do a farcical post on a children’s Sunday school lesson based on the story of David winning one of his many wives by presenting 200 Philistine foreskins to King Saul.]  Jesus affirmed that the true spirit of the law and the prophets was to love God with all that we have and to love one another as we love ourselves.

Mythology 2 – Genesis

Working assumptions:  Genesis 1-11 is divinely inspired mythology with important lessons to teach us.  It is not a literal historical account.  We should both respectfully learn from it and respectfully update our understanding of its significance.

Helpful insights:  The creation is good and beautiful and patterned in ways that reflect the character and purposes of the creator.  God’s intention is for Shalom – harmony between God and humanity and creation.  It is not good for humanity to be alone.  Love, sexuality, marriage, family, and community are all part of the created order.  Something is broken – it is not clearly defined or explained, but there is some force that distorts the truth, deceives, mars beauty, destroys life, alienates, and destroys Shalom.  Humanity is morally aware, capable of both good and evil – every one of us is capable of great love, empathy, kindness, and creativity – and everyone of us is fallen and alienated from God, self, others, and creation.  We are prone to pride, greed, self-deception, shame, and self-destruction.  God responds with both just judgment and gracious mercy.  God makes a covenant of love and a promise of redemption with humanity and with all creation.

Avoiding common misinterpretations:  This is neither accurate science nor literal history, and trying to force it to be what it is not only leads to misunderstanding.  God works slowly, patiently, and mysteriously through a long, circuitous evolutionary process.  Gradually life developed increasing complexity, consciousness, and social awareness to the point that we have great capacity for moral sensitivity, forethought, creativity, critical awareness, and (limited) freedom and control of our destinies.  We can and do use these capacities for good and evil and we are morally accountable for our actions.  There was no golden age and there was no ‘fall’ from grace.  Rather we have been gradually evolving for billions of years, we are still evolving, and we are capable of acting either in line with Shalom, beauty, creativity, wisdom, love, and life OR alienation, distortion, destruction, foolishness, selfishness, and death.  There may be some interesting insights into gender dynamics in the Genesis myth, but male and female both reflect the divine image and there is no superiority or inferiority or blame for ‘the fall’.  Death has always been a part of the circle of life on earth.  Physical death is not a punishment for sin, though it may be a metaphor for spiritual death / alienation from God.  (The Genesis account doesn’t actually say that death is a punishment for sin – although there is an intriguing and mysterious connection between the tree-of-the-knowledge-of-good-and-evil and the tree-of-life for which I’ve never heard a satisfactory explanation, but which provides rich imagery for the later myths of redemption and new creation.)  There was no global flood that destroyed all life on earth.  In the flood account there is some outdated portrayal of a wrathful, angry God – but his anger is motivated by grief at our self-destructive evil and we also see the early stages of revelation of a gracious, forgiving, saving, faithful God.  Humanity is indeed one common family divided by language and cultural differences, but this is a result of our 50,000-year-old history of migration, not an instantaneous event involving a tower.  The tower may represent human hubris and highlight our need to receive God’s grace rather than achieve our own redemption…  Later in the biblical story, the overcoming of cultural and language barriers will be a significant image of redemption.  I think we shall need some new mythologies for dealing with the issue living together as a global human family while maintaining our rich linguistic and cultural diversity.

Mythology 1 – Why We Tell Stories

I’m working on a series of posts on the stories we tell – especially MYTHS: epic archetypal stories (that may or may not be based on historical events) that speak to the universal human experience and are meant to illuminate the quest to understand- who are we?  where do we come from? where are we going? are we free?  do we have control of our destinies?  what is life’s meaning and purpose?  what is good?  what is evil?  who or what is the enemy?  who or what is the source of the brokenness?  who or what will heal us?  how will the story end?

I’ll look at some of our Christian mythology, perhaps other classics, modern mythology (fantasy, super-hero, sci-fi), and stories about our future.  I don’t claim to be a literary expert, but it’s something I’m interested in.  I’ll try to highlight areas where our myths are deeply true.  I’ll point out some ways our myths can be dangerous and can mislead us.  I’ll argue that we need to interpret our mythologies critically and have the wisdom to know when to modify our stories and interpretations thereof – even those found in our revered sacred texts.

I believe in re-mythologizing scripture.  There are some conservative tendencies to read scripture very literally and to extract systematic theological propositions and constructs.  There was at some point a movement within liberal scholarship to de-mythologize scripture, to get past the ‘fairy tales’ to what was actually historically accurate.  But I think we ought to read scripture precisely as mythology, as inspired stories, that may or may not be historically accurate, or literally true, or theologically rigid, but which lead us into the discovery of deep truth and wisdom.

After looking at some of our existing stories, I’ll begin to speculate about the kind of myths the world needs today – which will include drawing on the classics, re-telling them in new ways, and creating new stories.

Solipsylvania

A fun thought experiment about how life might have evolved differently on another planet (with some philosophical implications for our own planet).

Solipsylvania is the name of a planet, and of the single, immortal, conscious, intelligent, organism that evolved on that planet.  For when life evolved on this planet, it’s cells reproduced, recycled, mutated, adapted, evolved, and specialized – but they remained part of one single organism.  It started out like a growing algal bloom, then developed characteristics like moss or grass, and eventually like a forest.  It developed one massive, interconnected, neural network.  It developed a variety of senses: perception of chemicals in it’s environment, perception of various frequencies of electro-magnetic radiation, sensitivity to vibrations in the atmosphere.  It developed preferences for things that contributed to it’s thriving and growth, and these preferences evolved into feelings of pleasure and joy and a sense of aesthetics: of beauty and wonder.  It developed an awareness of time and the ability to predict, and plan, and imagine, and create.  It developed the ability to manipulate elements in its environment: to create both utilitarian and artistic artifacts.  It began to explore, and analyze, and discover, and understand it’s environment and itself.  It created an internal semantic language of thought, although this was never expressed audibly or visually.  It discovered the patterns of mathematics.  It observed and began to understand chemistry, its own biology, physics, astronomy.  It even learned to modify its own biological structures and further enhanced its own resilience and intelligence.

Now continue the thought experiment:

Could such an evolutionary process be possible?  Could there be life without death?  Evolution without competition?

Could / Would ‘Solip’ (for short) experience conflict?  Probably some competition between its parts, probably some difference of opinion and perspective within its large neural network… but would these all be overcome by the underlying reality – that we’re all part of one body?

How could Solip develop self-awareness?  What would that self-awareness feel like?  Our own sense of self-awareness evolved in the context of being partially independent but intensely interdependent social organisms, surviving in complex relationships of competition and collaboration.  Solip may have discovered that it was somehow separate from the non-living planet on which it lived and from which it drew nutrients, and separate from the vast space around it from which it drew energy, but it is hard to imagine what that self-awareness would be like.

Would Solip discover / encounter / develop an ethical sensitivity or any conception of good and evil?  (Most of our ethical categories would scarcely apply: empathy, love, justice, kindness, cruelty, generosity etc. all seem to require multiplicity of consciousness and scarcity)

Solip would experience pain and suffering: asteroid strikes, droughts, etc. – but if it survived for billions of years, it presumably developed resilience and the ability to heal.

Would Solip’s intelligence and consciousness develop much more rapidly given its immortality and unified memory?  There would be no need to wait for some intelligent organisms to figure out ways to share and store ideas.  On the other hand, maybe the lack of competition would slow the drive toward increasing complexity and intelligence.

Would Solip feel lonely, or even be able to conceive of the idea of other intelligent life?  Would it look for a way to communicate?  Could it conceive of the idea of communication?

Would Solip encounter God?  A sense of a creator with a divine purpose?  I’m sure God would love Solip – would Solip return that love?  How would Solip conceive of love?  Would Solip need to go through some process of fall and redemption?  Of brokenness and healing?  Of alienation and reconciliation?

Would Solip tell itself stories?  Would it develop a narrative framework to give meaning and purpose and direction to its life?

Religion evolved on Earth in the context of our own evolutionary journey that included a lot of competition, suffering, and death; but also a lot of collaboration, healing, and new life.  Jesus, and other spiritually sensitive souls, call us to leave behind separateness, selfishness, tribalism, and fear of death and embrace interdependence, love, harmony, and resurrection.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin proposed that life on earth and humanity’s collective consciousness are evolving toward something like a single planetary organism.  After a long process of diversification, we are becoming increasingly aware that we are deeply interconnected.  Globalization is resulting in networks of trade and communication that increasingly resemble a giant neural network and circulation system.

Our planet may be approaching a golden age in which we eradicate extreme poverty and war OR we may have caused an unstoppable and unprecedented ecological catastrophe and collapse of civilization OR something in between.  It is more critical than ever that we view ourselves as deeply interconnected with all of humanity and with our fragile shared planet.   While there is a growing awareness of our shared humanity there are also alarming backlashes of ‘tribalism’ and xenophobia.  Let’s hope that we find away to come together as a global family and live in sustainable harmony with our planet.

Interesting Links

Pando – the clonal aspen forest in Utah that is probably Earth’s most massive and oldest living organism.

Planetary – a moving documentary about our social, spiritual, ecological need to see ourselves as one with all humanity and our planet.

From Bacteria to Bach by Daniel Dennet – a fascinating perspective on the evolution of life, consciousness, and specifically human consciousness.

On Being a Conservative, Progressive, Empirical, Pragmatic, Mystical Christian

Conservative – I believe Jesus is the human incarnation of the divine mystery.  I follow him and invite others to follow him.  I am both fearfully and wonderfully made, and terribly broken and fallen.  I know my need for forgiveness, salvation, healing, and grace.  I have a high regard for scripture and for the ancient wisdom of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Progressive – I, together with all humanity, am on a journey of evolving faith and consciousness.  I view progressive revelation as genuine encounter with the divine filtered through contextualized and fallible human consciousness.  I welcome interfaith dialogue and collaboration, and I value the perspectives of other faiths, including atheism.  I am committed to social justice and ecological sustainability.  I am hopeful for ultimate universal reconciliation: in the end, love wins.

Empirical – I value evidence evaluated with the intellectual rigor and perpetually learning perspective of the scientific method.  Science and faith inform each other, keep each other honest, and, in a synthesis of creative tension, provide rich and wonderful insights into the nature of the cosmos.

Pragmatic – I focus on praxis, listening to intuition and common sense, asking what works, asking what makes the most coherent sense of lived experience, and asking what will inspire me to live a life of wisdom, beauty, creativity, empathy, justice, and love.

Mystical – I admit that we don’t really know with absolute certainty.  I embrace mystery, paradox, and wonder.  I view the narrative of faith primarily as mythology: “an archetypal message, expressed in story, that has many layers of meaning beyond the literal” (Richard Rohr, Aug 24, 2017 daily meditation)

Christian – All of the perspectives above are fully compatible with Christian orthodoxy and with faithfully following Jesus.